Classic Fantastic: Starman

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format — please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

Omnibus1StarmanMy first exposure to Starman came about when I was first getting into comics.  As I recall I was in my local comic book store fishing through The Quarter Bins.  Primarily the final resting place of whatever Bad-Girl books with a dozen variant covers the owner had over-ordered the previous year, The Quarter Bins still yielded the occasional treasure.

It was here, digging through several dozen copies of Danger Girl, where I stumbled across a copy of Starman #29.  With a cover painted – yes, painted! – by Tony Harris, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before in a comic and the interior work was just as impressive.  I must have starred at it for quite some time, broken from my reverie by the scornful snort of one of the shop employees – the one whose tastes were diametrically opposed to my own.

“You WOULD like that one.  The main guy?  He sounds like you.”

His disdain was all the invitation I needed to spend 25 cents.  Thankfully, Starman #29 turned out to be a prefect jumping-on issue, aimed at bringing new readers up to speed on The Story So Far.  And as promised the main character, Jack Knight, did indeed sound like me.

Jack was a self-proclaimed geek, “more in love with yesterday than tomorrow.”  Jack’s humor tilted in favor of heavy sarcasm and obscure pop-culture references that went over most people’s heads.  He was verbose, inclined to using a dozen words when one would do.  He was also, I realized sometime later, a bit of a jerk.  That revelation helped me to recognize my own character flaws and inspired me to correct them.

Even without that, I can honestly say without any hyperbole that Starman changed my life.  While other series brought me into comics, Starman kept me in them.  It gave me a penname and a nickname.  Jack Knight was my first cosplay.  And after a decade of reading comics and writing about comics, it’s still my favorite series of all time.

What’s it about?

Our story begins in the gloriously Art Deco town of Opal City.  We’re introduced to Jack Knight – a Bohemian artist and collectibles shop-owner who never got along with his scientist father, Ted Knight, or his athletic older brother, David Knight.  Jack was just as happy to stay out of the family business of protecting Opal City using his father’s starlight-fueled inventions as David was happy to take up their father’s mantle as the superhero Starman.  But when David is killed and Ted left hospitalized as a result of a crime spree orchestrated by The Mist – Starman’s arch-enemy – Jack reluctantly assumes his father’s role as Opal City’s protector.

Aiding Jack in his new job are The O’Dares – a quintet of cops, all the children of legendary local beat-cop Billy O’Dare, who was the closest thing Ted Knight had to a partner.  Guiding Jack in his assumption of the hero’s mantle is The Shade – a mysterious immortal and sometimes super-villain, who makes his home in Opal City and wishes to see it well protected… so long as nobody expects him to do the protecting.  As the series progresses, Jack will grow into his father’s shoes, become a true hero, find the love of his life, meet the other heroes who bore the name Starman, journey into space, travel back in time and even become a better person.

Notable Notes

starman-omnibus-21There are many reasons why Starman is notable but I’m going to focus upon three of them – the colorful cast of characters, the wonderful creative teams and the theme of transformation.

I’ve already spoken a bit about how unique Jack Knight was as a protagonist but that difference extends to the rest of the supporting cast.  Jack’s mentor The Shade is an unapologetic villain yet he aids Jack in protecting Opal City because of his personal vow to commit no crime there and see to the peace of his own home – presumably even super-criminals want a nice neighborhood to live in!  Each of the five O’Dare cops have a unique personality.  And that’s just the main cast.  I could write for pages about all the interesting incidental characters like the ghost pirate John Valor or Rat-Pack loving bank robber Jake “Bobo” Benetti.  Even the random thugs break the mold, arguing over which Sondheim musical was the best instead of the more usual sports-related minion chatter.

Artistically, Starman has a unique aesthetic, thanks to the efforts of some truly legendary creators.  Like Metropolis and Gotham City, Opal City has a unique feel to it that makes it as much a character as the people who inhabit it.  This is due to the Art Deco designs of artist Tony Harris.  Harris also painted the covers for most of the issues of the original comics as well as crafting original paintings for most of the soft-cover and all of the hard-cover collections of the series.  Though he only penciled the interiors of a little over half the series, Starman is as much Harris’ child as it is James Robinson’s.  Tribute must also be paid to David S. Goyer, who assisted Robinson with writing several issues.  Goyer is most famous today for his work as a screenwriter on various superhero movies, including Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Man of Steel.

Thematically, the book is all about the ability we all have to change ourselves for the better.  This is virtually unheard of in superhero comics, where most of the characters are static and their personalities unchanging.  The series is primarily about Jack’s transformation from a self-absorbed fanboy into a hero and a decent human being.  And yes, there is a difference between the two.  As one of Jack’s ex-girlfriends notes, “You may be a hero, Jack Knight, but that still doesn’t make you a nice person.” This theme also extends to most of the series’ main characters, who change for the better as the story progresses.

I’m hard pressed to think of one story arc out of dozens to hold up as the best or most memorable.  But if I had to pick one, I’d say Sand And Stars – an arc collected in The Starman Omnibus: Volume 2.  I picked this one for two reasons.  The first is that this is the arc that won Robinson and Harris an Eisner Award for Best Serialized Story.  The second is that this story contains a line, thought by retired superhero Wesley Dodds (a.k.a. The Sandman) as he watches Jack Knight fly into battle, that I think sums up the appeal of adventure fiction in three short sentences.  “He’s in danger.  He may die.  And I envy him the thrill of it.”

Significance

Starman3Starman came about because writer James Robinson wanted to establish a common mythology for every character published by DC Comics who ever used the codename Starman.  When the series started in 1994, there had been six separate heroes who had used the name and only two of them had any link to one another.  Starman was meant to create those missing connections.

Starman was also significant for promoting the glorious past of DC Comics at a time when the American comics industry seemed to be abandoning their roots in favor of books centered upon violent anti-heroes.  As part of the series, James Robinson penned a number of flashback stories known as Times Past, which told epic tales in a modern style using the characters and trappings of yesteryear.  This proved the value of the early superheroes and the relevance of their morality to the modern world.

In many ways, Starman predated Kingdom Come in rejecting the values of The Dark Age and introducing the storytelling techniques common to The Modern Age.  If it hadn’t been for Starman, it’s unlikely we would have had a revival of the Justice Society of America and the heroes affiliated with that group in the pages of JSA.  There’s also a chance that Geoff Johns – DC Comics current Chief Creative Officer – would have had a markedly different career path as his first professional comics work – Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. – was created with input from James Robinson and spun out of Starman.

Appeal

It’s difficult to suggest an ready-made audience for Starman as the people I know who enjoy the series besides myself are as eclectic as the series itself and defy easy classification.  It’s a superhero book but it’s unlike any other superhero series I can think of and I can’t see your average X-Men fan seeing the appeal.  Fans of Golden Age comics will find a lot to enjoy, though.  There are elements of the series that will likely appeal to fans of science-fiction (particularly the Stars My Destination arc) but it isn’t entirely a science-fiction series, being closer to classic Doctor Who in tone than Star Trek.

I would instead recommend this series to fans of quirky dialogue and unusual characters in general.  If you enjoy Jerry Seinfeld’s talking about nothing, Christopher Moore novels, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Michael Stipe’s music or Chuck Klosterman’s essays, there’s a fair chance you’ll enjoy Jack’s dialogue and adventures.  I’d also recommend the series to anyone who is a collector, whether it be of comics, tin signs, baseball cards, Barbie dolls or anything that anyone might consider cool and put on a shelf.  You’re likely to find a kindred spirit in Jack Knight as I did.

I consider this series a must-read for all graphic novel enthusiasts 16 and up.  That age restriction is due less to the content (though there are a few graphic deaths, a fair bit of innuendo and suggested nudity) and more to the fact that a certain level of maturity is needed to appreciate the growth of the characters as well as some of the dramatic situations and most teenagers lack the patience to muddle through the talky bits between the action scenes.

Why should you own this?

Historically, Starman is an important series for students of the genre to study.  It’s an award-winner, frequently held up as a source of inspiration by many of today’s most popular graphic novel writers and artists.  It’s also a damn fine read on its own terms.  With the recent Omnibus collection of the series – currently available in its entirety in Hardcover with paperback editions on the way – there’s no excuse for a library NOT to have this series in their adult graphic novel collection, in my professional opinion.

Starman Omnibus (hardcover)

  • Volume 1 – 9781401216993
  • Volume 2 – 9781401221942
  • Volume 3 – 9781401222840
  • Volume 4 – 9781401225964
  • Volume 5 – 9781401228897
  • Volume 6 – 9781401230449
  • http://queenoflimes.wordpress.com Mallory

    Now I really want to read Starman. Great review!